There’s No Time To Waste

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Wil Posey about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Epiphany [Year B] (Jonah 3.1-5, 10, Psalm 62.5-12, 1 Corinthians 7.29-31, Mark 1.14-20). Our conversation covers a range of topics including Duke Divinity School, the Greek exegesis of Mark, bad nicknames, scripturally shaped imaginations, economics, the privatization of faith, the cost of discipleship, and the word that appears in the Bible more than any other word. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: There’s No Time To Waste

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One Crazy Year

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Last week Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and I sat down to review the interviews that we put out through Crackers and Grape Juice in 2017. From what started as a fever-dream, we’ve created and cultivated a weekly podcast (with two offshoots) that is approaching its 200,000th download. On Crackers and Grape Juice we interview guests about recent books, articles, or current events. On (Her)men•you•tics we pick one theological term per week and unpack it without using stained glass language. And on Strangely Warmed we spend thirty minutes every week talking about the four lectionary readings for the following Sunday to help preacher prepare and to help lay people tune in their ears to the language of scripture.

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2017 was an incredible year for the podcast in which we started Strangely Warmed and (Her)men•you•tics, we held a number of live events for people to experience a recording in person, and we produced conversations with a range of guests including (but not limited to), Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, Amy Butler, Bishop Sharma Lewis, Robert Jenson, Rod Dreher, Fleming Rutledge, David Bentley Hart, Walter Brueggemann, Brian Zahnd, Tripp Fuller, and Diana Butler Bass. If you would like to listen to our recap episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: 2017 Year In Review

The Greatest Thing In History

I wrote about the Christian problem with Nuclear War back in August and in my naiveté I thought I wouldn’t have to bring it up again any time soon. I was wrong…

Following Jesus, being disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War; it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. Or at least it was until world leaders started threatening each other with Thermonuclear War comparing nuclear button sizes this week…

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Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated.

70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

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This week President Trump’s declared that if North Korea continues to provoke the Unites States we will respond with a power the likes of which the world has never seen his nuclear button is far larger and more powerful than Kim Jong-un’s. And in response to President Trump’s words tweet, Christians on the left and the right have responded with bombastic language (pun intended).

A Tweet from the Twitter account of U.S. President Donald Trump

On the right there have been pastors coming out to announce that God has given President Trump the right and the authority to wipe North Korea off the map. And on the left there have been Christian pacifists who have declared that the President is out of his mind and that we are on the brink of annihilation because of his crass words. However, we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if war-hungry Christians use scripture to defend nuclear aggression or if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled. Otherwise the world will become a heap of ashes or people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

Think And Let Think’s Top 10 – 2017

I started Think And Let Think a few years ago as a way to compile my thoughts, sermons, and devotionals. After starting at my first church in 2013 it became an easy way for parishioners to access the sermons from Sunday if they were unable to attend. Over the years the scope of the blog has grown far beyond the people I serve in the local church, and 2017 saw a tremendous increase in readership. Below are the 10 most popular posts from 2017.

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  1. Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.

I preached exclusively from Romans during Lent. After reading through Barth’s Romans for the nth time, I felt like I needed to stay in the letter through a liturgical season and dragged my congregation along for the ride. This sermon was prompted by Paul’s reflections on Abraham’s righteousness and my contempt for the United Methodist Church’s slogan of open hearts, open minds, and open doors.

“We can have the perfect advertising campaign, with our slogan in big capital letters, but that does not redeem our sinful actions and behaviors. We might think we are righteous and that we are “color-blind” or “LGBTQ affirming” or “economically transparent” but we are nevertheless sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. We can even leave the church doors unlocked all week long, but we will still be broken and in need of God’s redeeming love.”

 

  1. God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

At the beginning of the year I preached through a series on Dumb Things Christians Say. One of the dumbest things Christians say on a regular basis is, “God Wont’ Give You More Than You Can Handle.” Oddly enough, it’s not true. This sermon works through the phrase and attempt to show that God doesn’t give us what we can handle, but that God helps us handle what we are given.

“Sometimes, we say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because we don’t know what else to say. We encounter the shadow of suffering that is so suffocating we don’t know how to respond. So instead, we will that awful void with awful words. And we make God into a monster.”

 

  1. A Reminder For Those Attending Annual Conference

Annual Conference can be a time of great renewal and great cynicism. 2017 was no different. In the days leading up to the Virginia Annual Conference gathering I collected my thoughts in hopes that all of would remember that the church is primarily about God, and only secondarily about us.

“God is the one who first breathed life into John Wesley and sent him on a course that would forever reorient the fabric of the church. God is the one who breathed life into all of the churches of the Virginia Conference, who empowers the pastors to proclaim the Word from their respective pulpits, who shows up in the bread and in the cup at the table. God is the one who gathers us together for a time of holiness, who moves in the words we sing, who rests in the spaces between us when we worship, who calls us to serve the kingdom instead of serving ourselves.”

 

  1. The Mystery Of Marriage

I was privileged to preside over the wedding of one of my oldest friends this year and it prompted a wedding homily that gets at the heart of why getting married is such a strange act of faith.

“Love, the kind of love that will sustain your marriage, holy love, is Godly love. It is a love unlike anything else on this earth. It is beyond definition and explanation. It is deeper than the deepest ocean, and greater than the tallest mountain. It is sacrifice and resolution. It is compromise and dedication. The love that God has for you is the kind of love you are promising to one another and it is a mystery. It is only something you can figure out while you’re figuring it out.”

 

  1. The Church Doesn’t Exist To Make A Difference

It took five years of full time ministry before I received my first piece of anonymous hate mail. Because it was anonymous and therefore could not have a dialogue with the individual, I wrote a reflection about their complaint in hopes they would one day see it.

“Christians in America have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, than it’s not worth our time and attention. In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.”

 

  1. Thoughts On The Cross Flag

In the days immediately following President Trump’s response to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, the lectionary reading was Psalm 25.5: “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” That week I found myself surrounded by conversations that had everything to do with politics, and nothing to do with God. And after reading the psalm, my thoughts on the Cross/Flag came flying out.

“It’s one thing for talking heads to ramble about the pros and cons of kneeling during the anthem but it’s another thing entirely when it comes to the realm of the church. These days the church seems to revolve around tweets from the White House more than the revealed Word of God. These days the church appears to spend more of it’s time debating the values of our country’s democracy than our Savior’s teachings and ethics. These days the church seems to believe that our salvation will come from Congress more than from Jesus Christ.”

 

  1. Ten Things I Learned From My First Week At A New Church

I moved from St. John’s UMC in Staunton, VA to Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA this year. It was my first pastoral reappointment and after finishing my first week at the new church, I put together a list of ten things I learned.

“Like being surprised, it’s important to remember that something will go wrong. On my first Sunday at St. John’s I completely forgot to give the offering plates to the ushers and they just stood by the altar patiently waiting until one of the choir members waved her hands to get my attention. For my first Sunday at Cokesbury we didn’t have anyone to play music. The long time organist retired the day before I arrived and the back up players were either out of town or don’t know how to read music. So instead of singing along to an organ or a piano or a guitar we did everything acapella and (thanks be to God) we made it through the service.”

 

  1. What Things?

After announcing to the church in Staunton that I was being appointed somewhere else, I discovered a tremendous freedom in my preaching (because like it or not, they were only stuck with me for a finite period of time). After reading the lectionary text for the week, Luke 24.13-19 (The Walk to Emmaus), I felt like the time had come to address a pertinent controversy in the community; naming the local High School after Robert E. Lee.

“We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.”

 

  1. God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It

Another sermon from the series about “Dumb Things Christians Say.” This one was based on “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” with thoughts on church bathrooms, women speaking in church, and caring for refugees. (This one got me in some trouble)

“People have used this book, with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward people of different religions. It has been used to incite fear and terror in those who do not believe. It has been used as a weapon again and again and again. And now we, the people of God, join together to say “no more!””

 

  1. On Not Looking Like A Pastor

I, apparently, don’t look, sound, or act like a pastor. And I think this is a good thing.

“We, Christians and Pastors alike, are more than how the world portrays us. We are broken people who are in need of grace. We are faithful people filled with the joy of the Spirit. We are hopeful people who believe the church is the better place God has made in the world. So I am grateful for not appearing like a pastor. I am grateful because I believe it will help me help others to see what the grace of God has done for me.”

Q&A with Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass [Live]

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The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. Tripp is the founder of Homebrewed Christianity which produces podcasts and publishes books and Diana is an author, speaker, and scholar specializing in American religion and culture. In the final part of the evening, we invited Tripp and Diana to respond to questions from the audience including: Why is the second Advent necessary? What about Advent is important for white people in a world full of racial inequality? and What’s right with the Church? Also – The episode ends with a Christmas sing-a-long led by Tripp… If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Diana Butler Bass & Tripp Fuller – Q&A [Live]

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Advent Longing [Live]

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The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. In the second part of the evening, we invited Diana to join us at the front and she explored the the ramifications of announcing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the importance of the second Advent, human agency vs. divine agency, and how to teach children about the already but not yet of God’s Advent in Christ. Diana is an author, speaker, and scholar specializing in American religion and culture. If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Advent Longing

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Make Advent Great Again [Live]

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The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. In the first part of the evening, we invited Tripp to join us at the front and he waxed lyrical about what its like to experience Advent from the pews (rather than the pulpit), the inherent politics of the season, the virgin birth, and how to teach children about this liturgical moment. Tripp is the founder of Homebrewed Christianity which produces podcasts and publishes books. If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Make Advent Great Again

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